Two days exploring the Dorset coast from Bridport to Charmouth

There are more than 80 miles of Dorset coastline, much of it with World Heritage Status. We spent a couple of days exploring the eight mile section between Charmouth and West Bay, an area packed full of fossils, great walks and spectacular views.

West Bay

Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast

Our first stop was West Bay, the village made famous by the TV drama, Broadchurch.

We visited out of season, early on a grey Monday morning. Although many places were open the village felt a little ‘closed for winter’. We mooched around the harbour, got buffeted by the wind on the pier and then lost ourselves in a huge building full of crafts and antiques.

However, it’s the cliffs which West Bay is famous for so, once we’d seen the village, we headed towards the beach and its towering golden sandstone cliffs.

Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast

Our walk started, as expected,with a steep uphill climb to blow the cobwebs away. Once up top we enjoyed a fabulous walk along a stretch of the rollercoaster Dorset coast. This area isn’t without its dangers. A short while after we visited a huge rockfall temporarily closed both the beach and the cliff path. After seeing the photographs it’s a sobering thought that we were walking beside the collapsed cliff section. Do visit, but abide by all warning notices.

Walking back down to West Bay
Walking back down to West Bay

We didn’t walk far. The weather wasn’t conducive to staying on the cliffs and we had a longer walk planned for the afternoon so we soon retraced our steps to the village to find a cafe for lunch. If it’s a nice day, and you fancy seafood for lunch, I’d suggest checking out the kiosks by the harbour. However it was too cold for us to mill around outside and most were still closed for winter so we opted for indoor comfort at West Bay Tea Rooms. This was a great choice with friendly service and good size portions.

Golden Cap walk

After lunch we drove over to Seatown, our starting point for a walk to the summit of Golden Cap. This is a flat topped hill that looked distinctly un-golden when we arrived at Seatown car park. Obscured by heavy rain I decided it best to shelter in the car whilst we waited for the rain to blow over. If you’re without a car and looking for shelter the alternative is a quick half in the Anchor Inn. Although you might be tempted to stay longer than strictly necessary…

Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk
Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk

At 191 metres Golden Cap is the highest point on the south coast. We followed the 4 mile AA Golden Cap in Trust route. As per our morning walk it started with a steep schlep up to the summit. The heavy rain had made it much muddier and slippier than I’d envisaged. Although when the sun came out a few minutes later all was forgiven. The route to the top took us around half an hour or so; by then we’d jettisoned our outer layers as spring appeared!

Muddy route up Golden Cap
Muddy route up Golden Cap

On a clear day it is evidently possible to see as far as Dartmoor from the summit. Whenever facts like this are pointed out to me I’m always disappointed as I can never see as far as some people obviously can. I could certainly see Portland Bill and, in the opposite direction, Lyme Regis. But not Dartmoor.

Route to Golden Cap summit
Route to Golden Cap summit

Our route continued down the far side, passing the ruins of St Gabriel’s Church. There are some fabulously located National Trust holiday cottages here if you fancy getting away from it all (or as much as you can in Dorset). These buildings are all that remain of Stanton St Gabriel, a village deserted in the 18th Century after residents moved to nearby towns for work.

Golden Cap trig point
Golden Cap trig point

The rest of the route took us on a tour of green and quiet lanes. We cut back beneath Langdon Hill, which is still part of the National Trust estate and offers an alternative starting point for the Golden Cap ascent. As you return to Seatown the views of the Dorset coast return too, it’s even more beautiful when the sun is shining!

Charmouth fossil hunt

The following day saw us in Charmouth, exploring a stretch of Dorset coastline marketed as the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs and beaches are full of fossils that reveal the Earth’s history, from prehistoric Triassic deserts to tropical Jurassic sea. Fossil hunting in Charmouth has long featured on my UK bucket list so I was looking forward to our next activity, a walk with a fossil expert.

We’d booked a walk with fossilwalks.com; at just £5 per head it was excellent value. They run most days during the school holidays or alternatively you can book a rather more expensive private walk. Whatever you choose, book early.

Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach
Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach

The walk starts with a half hour introductory talk about where to find the fossils, what to look out for and what you might find. Chris, our guide, passed around samples of the different fossils for us to handle. We also learnt how to use our hammers correctly (additional cost, book in advance through the guide).

After our briefing we set off to find fossils on the beach. This is a key safety point. Fossil hunting takes place on the beach, not the cliffs! I was sceptical at first to think that fossils would just be lying around on the beach. That was until I found my first ammonite on the sandy shore. Followed by further ammonites, belemnites and, what I’ll call, stones with fossils in. Perhaps not exciting finds in geological terms but I was happy with my haul.

View from Charmouth beach
View from Charmouth beach

Charmouth Heritage Centre

After the walk we visited Charmouth Heritage Centre which houses some larger fossil finds information about the area’s history and geology. Entrance is free (although do leave a donation) and highly recommended; they also offer guided walks and hammer hire.

If you haven’t managed to find any fossils on the beach there’s also a fossil shop next door. Shush, no-one need ever know you’ve bought one.

So, there you have it. Two days exploring the Dorset coast. I now need a few more months to explore the rest of it!

Hidden London tour of Aldwych tube station

Fancy visiting a disused underground station? I did! With a little forward planning (and hint dropping) I was lucky enough to receive a Hidden London tour of Aldwych station as a Christmas present. What did I think?

Alydwych station

Entrance to Aldwych (Strand) Station
Entrance to Aldwych (Strand) Station

Aldwych began life as the Strand station. Hence the rather confusing sign outside the entrance. In stark contrast to those entering Fashion Week across the road our group was (mostly) middle aged and comfortably dressed. No high heels allowed on this tour!

Aldwych was never a busy station. When it opened in 1907 the first two trains didn’t have any passengers at all. Despite partial refurbishment in the 1980s passenger numbers remained low. When the station closed in 1994 only 450 people were using it every day. That said, it’s no ghost station. Indeed, it has led a significant alternative life as we discovered on the tour.

Ticket hall and entrance

The tour started in the ticket hall where our guides, Paul and Nick, provided an overview of the station. The architect, Leslie Green, designed a number of Tube stations, often with similar distinctive features. Our guides highlighted the red station frontage, the teal and cream tiling scheme and the design of the ticket office windows. And to think I’ve never given the design of underground stations a second glance before.

Deserted Aldwych underground station
Deserted Aldwych underground station

From the ticket hall we walked down our first set of stairs to the eastern platform. At this point I realised I hadn’t taken any photos of the ticket hall. I later regretted this as you exit via an alternative route; make sure you don’t make the same mistake if you visit.

Lift shafts

Our next stop was the lift shafts. Three shafts were dug out by hand but only one was fitted with lifts. This economy of design is reflected elsewhere in the station, from unfinished tiling to tunnels.

We discovered that one of the unfinished lift shafts was the perfect location for a music video, Prodigy’s Firestarter. Other bands, including Madness and The Kinks, have also filmed down here.

Eastern platform

The eastern platform only saw active service until 1917, at least in relation to its train service.

Eastern platform, Aldwych
Eastern platform, Aldwych

In World War I the platform acted as an emergency store for over 300 paintings from the National Gallery. This function was repeated in World War II when many valuable artworks were moved underground for storage. These included the Elgin Marbles, which were brought down in the lift. Our guides showed us the large looped rings installed to make their subsequent removal easier.

Tiling designs, Aldwych station
Tiling designs, Aldwych station

Elsewhere on the eastern platform there are experimental tiling designs. We discovered that one of Aldwych’s many alternative uses is as a drawing board for other stations.

Rails at Aldwych underground station
Rails at Aldwych underground station

Although they might not look particularly exciting these original rails contribute to the station’s Grade 2 listing. They are very different to today’s rails; there’s no suicide pit and the sleepers are wooden. They also include an early design of insulator. This is, evidently, a big deal for insulator enthusiasts!

Aldwych Station adverts
Aldwych Station adverts

Posters still adorn some of the walls. Including a timely advert encouraging us to join the Common Market!

Western platform

The Western platform remained open until the station’s closure.

In World War II it was used as an overnight air raid shelter. We sat in a disused carriage and listened to a recording of Julian Andrews, recounting his time spent sheltering here.

Western platform, Aldwych underground station
Western platform, Aldwych underground station

Although the government propaganda advertised a holiday camp atmosphere the reality was a lot of people in a very small space with minimal privacy and hygiene. The toilet was initially a curtained off bucket. However as the bombings dragged on an underground community was formed, offering a library, religious services and entertainers including George Formby.

Whitechapel sign - in Aldwych
Whitechapel sign – in Aldwych

Despite the lack of trains the station is still in use today. Nowadays it makes money from film and TV studios. Films such as Atonement and Darkest Hour and TV shows Sherlock and Mr Selfridge were filmed here. Hence, not everything is at it seems. The Whitechapel sign is an obvious imposter but our guide also pointed out fake tiling and wall panels left behind by the film companies.

Underground map, Aldwych station
Underground map, Aldwych station

The station is also used by emergency and armed services to carry out training. Forces trained here as part of the preparation for the 2012 London Olympics and in 2015 it was used by the emergency services in a mock terrrorist attack.

Western platform, Aldwych
Western platform, Aldwych

There was a lot of heavy breathing as the group climbed the 160 steps back to the surface. From where, ironically, we finished our tour in the lift.

Aldwych lifts

The Edwardian lifts weren’t very reliable and their potential refurbishment cost was one of the reasons for the stations eventual closure. The power failed on occassions so a supply of candles were kept in the lift. If the lift broke down we were shown a ‘secret’ door into the next door lift shaft from where the second lift could come and rescue passengers. Nowadays the lifts don’t move, I’m rather glad of that!

Our 75 minute tour sped by. I’m usually desperate to get out of underground stations but the tour could easily have lasted another hour. I certainly have a new found appreciation of the tunnels beneath our feet!

This trip was on my UK bucket list, pop over to my  blog post to see what else is on there.

More info

  • Hidden London tours are an offshoot of the London Transport Museum. Tours of a variety of underground stations (some disused, some not) are announced several times per year. Most sell out quickly so sign up to the advance notice mailing list on their website to be in with a chance.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

A Roman day out in London

Aside from the educational value, there are two great benefits to a Roman day out in London. Firstly the attractions are mostly indoors, secondly they’re free. This makes it a perfect option for a rainy half term visit. But where to go to discover Londinium?

The Roman settlement of Londinium roughly covered the City of London. It grew rapidly in the 1st Century to overtake Colchester as the largest city in the country. Despite the appearance of modern day London there are still many Roman ruins beneath the city. We spent a day visiting some of London’s more accessible Roman attractions.

Temple of Mithras

Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London
Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London

Even though it’s more than 1800 years old the Temple of Mithras is a relatively new addition to the London tourist circuit. It’s surreally located under part of the Bloomberg European HQ building.

The temple was initially unearthed in the 1950s following excavation works on a bombsite. Thousands of people flocked to see it during its excavation and the temple was subsequently reconstructed for all to see. However, it was criticised for not being an accurate representation; this has been rectified since Bloomberg acquired the site on which it stands.

Temple of Mithras
Temple of Mithras

The current day temple is a faithful reconstruction of the ruin, using original stone and brick. Some parts, such as mortars, are new but have been recreated as if they were 3rd Century Roman.

The first floor displays Roman artefacts found during the excavation including sandals, pottery and coins. Visitors then descend to a mezzanine where you can learn more about the cult of Mithras. A further set of stairs takes you down to the temple.

London Mithraeum
London Mithraeum

The temple would have been at ground level during the Roman era. It’s now seven metres below the pavement! As you enter there’s lighting and sound effects to enhance your visit. The show is around 10 minutes long; visitors are then free to spend time at the end wandering around the temple. It’s not particularly large but is interesting and well worth a visit.

Entrance is free. We turned up on spec and were allowed in immediately but if you want to guarantee entry book online in advance.

Museum of London

The Museum of London is a fantastic place to learn more about the development of the city and its people. I prefer to dip into specific rooms or exhibitions rather than attempt to see it all in one go; the Roman galleries are perfect for this.

Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London
Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London

The museum has recently refreshed its display of items that were unearthed at the Temple of Mithras excavations. This makes it an ideal stop after you’ve seen the actual temple. In addition to the Temple artefacts there are exhibits dedicated to many different aspects of Roman society, including trade, burials and games.

From the museum take a peak out the window at your next destination…

London Wall

Roman wall from Museum of London
Roman wall from Museum of London

The Romans built the London Wall as a defensive structure around the landward side of the city sometime between 190 and 225 AD. Parts of it have survived in modern day London albeit with medieval enhancements. One of the easiest sections to spot is right outside the Museum of London, conveniently visible from the Roman galleries inside.

Another well known and easily accessible section is at Tower Hill. An alternative untouristy option is the underground car park next to the Museum of London. Funnily enough we were the only people wandering around the car park looking for a wall.

London Wall, near Museum of London
London Wall, near Museum of London

Roman amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery

On to our last Roman attraction of the day. This time, a Roman amphitheatre underneath the Guildhall Art Gallery.

If you visit, first check out the curved line of black stone in the Guildhall yard. This marks the outline of the arena which lies several metres beneath you.

London guildhall
London guildhall

The amphitheatre was discovered in 1988 by archaeologists who were taking part in a dig in preparation for the new art gallery. The remnants were subsequently integrated into the exhibition and have been on public display since 2002.

To reach the ruins you’ll need to walk though part of the art gallery. The juxtaposition of the ornate Guildhall and pre-Raphaelite art with public executions and gladiatorial combat is an intriguing mix!

Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Once underground, the partial remains include a stretch of entrance tunnel, the east gate and stone walls. Display boards outline the history and use of the amphitheatre.

It’s artfully lit, albeit a little heavy on the green graphics for my taste. I like my attractions more, well, Roman. The most surprising thing however was the lack of visitors. A well kept secret!

Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall
Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall

The amphitheatre was a fitting final to our Roman day out. I highly recommend spending a day uncovering history that’s literally beneath your feet.

If you’re looking for other themed days out in London check out my Great Fire of London walk or my post about exploring Second World War London.

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Otis and Us

Best places to see snowdrops in Oxfordshire and Berkshire

Snowdrop weekends have become ‘a thing’ over the last few years. The lure of cake (there’s almost always a tearoom) and the illusion that spring might be on the way certainly works for me. I’ve therefore rounded up my suggestions for the best places to see snowdrops in Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Actually, they’re primarily in Oxfordshire, but I couldn’t leave Welford Park out!

Snowdrop weekends are generally held in mid February but this is weather dependent and they sometimes change with minimal notice. Make sure you check the individual websites for opening dates and times before you make a special journey.

Swyncombe church, near Henley

My kind of sign!
My kind of sign!

Pop along and walk around the snowdrops in the churchyard, enjoy cake and coffee and browse other stalls inside the church. The long distance Ridgeway footpath runs past the church so you can always justify the cake by going for a walk beforehand! Read about our previous visit here.

The churchyard is always open; snowdrop weekends are usually held over three February weekends; visit the church website for further details. Free entrance.

Kingston Bagpuize house, near Abingdon

Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house
Snowdrops in Church Copse, Kingston Bagpuize house

A privately owned home which opens its gardens  for visitors on Sundays in February. There’s more to the garden than just snowdrops; enjoy a wander around the parkland before heading to the tearoom for cake. They even have a dedicated snowdrop plant fair!

Read about our previous visit to the garden here.  Entrance charge applies; further details on the Kingston Bagpuize website.

Braziers Park, near Wallingford

Braziers Park snowdrops
Braziers Park snowdrops

Open for snowdrop visits over just one weekend in February, the estate and house at Braziers Park are run by a community of residential volunteers. As well as snowdrop walks there’s house and estate tours, a pop up tearoom and plants for sale.

Entrance fee and parking charge applies; further details on the Braziers Park website.

Waterperry Gardens

Waterperry Gardens are open year round but run a couple of dedicated snowdrop weekends in February. There are more than 60 varieties of snowdrops in the garden; you can join a guided tour to find out more.

There’s a gift barn, tea shop and garden centre. Entrance charge applies, details on the Waterperry Gardens website.

Badbury Hill, near Faringdon

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Badbury Hill is better known for its bluebells. However there are snowdrops too, albeit nowhere near as many as other sites here. Perhaps incorporate the visit as part of a longer walk rather than make a specific journey.

The wood can be visited at any time. No facilities but Faringdon is close by. Free entrance.

Welford Gardens, near Newbury

Snowdrops at Welford Park
Snowdrops at Welford Park

This is the granddaddy of local snowdrop displays. I think there are more snowdrops at Welford than all of the places above put together. More visitors too!

Welford Park snowdrops
Welford Park snowdrops

The snowdrops in the beech wood are spectacular. They are partially fenced off which is a good thing otherwise they’d be trampled by the hordes. More snowdrops, and aconites, can be found along the river bank. Look closely and you might even spot the telltale marks where the Great British Bake Off tent is erected each spring!

You can read about one of our previous visits here.

Open throughout February (except Mondays and Tuesdays). There are tearooms, a small gift shop and special snowdrop events throughout the month. Entrance charge applies; monies raised are split between local charities. Full details on the Welford Park website.

Have you visited any of the above? Or do have alternative suggestions?